Northam directs VEC to speed up processing unemployment claims

Updated: May. 18, 2021 at 11:24 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Governor Ralph Northam has directed the Virginia Employment Commission to invest $20 million to expand its ability to process unemployment claims.

An executive directive orders the agency to “add 300 new adjudication staffers, make immediate technology upgrades, and complete a full modernization of the Commonwealth’s unemployment insurance system by October 1, 2021.”

Currently, the Virginia Employment Commission is in the middle of court-ordered mediation with the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) to fix problems that have plagued during the pandemic, leaving many Virginians with no safety net. The LAJC said that mediation concluded on Tuesday afternoon.

The lawsuit cited the VEC’s “gross failure” in getting unemployment payments out in 21 days on claims needing more review, “violating federal and state law. During one period in the pandemic, Virginia ranked last in the country when a VEC deputy was needed to reach out to employers for more info, with only two percent of cases decided in a timely manner.”

The LAJC released the following statement:

“The Governor’s announcement today appears to have been released right at the conclusion of this afternoon’s mediation. The parties have come to an agreement, and we expect Judge Hudson to enter an enforceable order later this week. The details of the order will tightly track with the specific plans listed in the Governor’s statement. In addition to the items named by the Governor, the order will also require data sharing between the VEC and our team on a regular basis to ensure that progress is being made, and will require nearly all the cases currently waiting for adjudication be resolved by Labor Day.

“We are pleased that the VEC and the Governor now see the need to take significant action to address the adjudication backlog along with other issues at the agency, and we hope to see quick relief for those who continue to wait for an answer and for the help they desperately need.”

Virginia’s unemployment system has been one of the lowest-funded in the country for decades.

“In fact, Virginia ranks 51st out of 53 states and territories for the amount of federal funding it receives relative to what Virginia businesses pay in taxes. The problem was hidden by years of low unemployment and a consistently strong economy, and the pandemic has highlighted this reality,” a release from Northam’s office said.

The directive requires the VEC to take the following immediate actions:

  • Set a clear goal for resolving UI claims.
  • Continue investment in Customer Contact Center.
  • Modernize the benefits system.
  • Collaborate with the Virginia congressional delegation to resolve federal funding disparity.

“We are trying to reach at least 10,000 adjudications and hearings a week, moving to 20,000 by July 31,” said Northam’s Cheif Workforce Development Advisor Megan Healy.

The 300 adjudication positions would be temporary. Healy says training for these positions typically takes 18 months of training but says the VEC will be streamlining the process to just a few weeks to help reduce the backlog of applicants as soon a possible.

“Every adjudication officer is going to really know one piece of that process and look through the case to get many people through the system,” Healy said.

The plan also includes expanding the agency’s customer service capacity to provide information faster to people with questions about their claims and to overhaul its 41-year-old benefits system with technology upgrades by October which should make it easier to communicate with the VEC, apply for benefits, and receive notifications about flags on your application.

Northam says he wants to put more funding into the states under funded Unemployment Insurance System, but at this time it’s unclear if businesses will wind up paying more in taxes to do that.

“I think it’s too early to tell. We are well aware that businesses are struggling and the last thing that we want to do is have an increase in taxes. That’s what Governor Northam did this past December and we’ll be working with our General Assembly moving forward to hopefully resolve some of those tax issues,” Healy said.

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